Amendment 153A

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Report (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 21 May 2024.

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Lord Bellamy:

Moved by Lord Bellamy

153A: Clause 53, page 54, line 14, leave out from beginning to “, for” in line 15 and insert—“(1) Section 239 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (the Parole Board) is amended as follows.(2) In subsection (5)”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is consequential on my amendment of Clause 53, page 54, line 21.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, for convenience, I will start, if I may, with Amendments 154B to 154D, which relate to the role of the chair of the Parole Board. The Government have taken note of the debate in Committee regarding the original proposals affecting the Parole Board chair and the power of the Secretary of State to dismiss the Parole Board chair.

Strong leadership of the Parole Board is essential. It appears that a mechanism already exists, in the unlikely event that it is needed, for the Secretary of State to ask an independent panel to consider dismissing the chair if there are concerns about their ability to do the job effectively. On balance, the Government have decided that this existing mechanism is sufficient, so we will not be proceeding with the original proposals in the original Bill.

We have also listened to feedback that the judicial functions of the chair, including deciding whether a hearing can be held in public, would most appropriately continue to be held by the chair. It has become clear that, to lead the board effectively, the chair should retain these functions, including their ability to take part in individual cases. For these reasons, I have tabled these amendments to remove all provisions relating to the chair of the board from the Bill.

I turn next to my Amendments 153A and 154A, which seek to amend Section 239(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. These amendments enable the Secretary of State to create procedural rules via secondary legislation which the Parole Board must follow when carrying out its statutory duties.

These amendments will allow the Secretary of State to create new rules that will allow the Parole Board chair to delegate certain functions, including some judicial functions, from board members to staff in its secretariat. The Government intend for this provision to be commenced immediately on Royal Assent. This is the subject of Amendments 162A and 162B, to which I shall refer briefly in a moment.

Other courts and tribunals typically have provisions in primary legislation to allow for rules permitting the delegation of certain functions but, to date, we have not had comparable provisions for the Parole Board.

The Parole Board has approximately 320 members and 200 staff in its secretariat. Its members are public appointees, including judicial members, specialist members and independent members, the specialist members typically being psychologists or psychiatrists.

The purpose of the amendment is to give the Parole Board greater flexibility in how it manages its workload. I have to say that delays in the Parole Board process are currently serious and must be tackled. Each review that the Parole Board carries out will include a range of case management decisions, such as varying or revoking certain directions, agreeing deadlines or timelines, adding or removing witnesses, or adjourning or deferring cases that are not ready to be heard. At present, these decisions are taken by Parole Board members, but that is not always necessary. There are efficiency savings to be made if some case management decisions could be delegated to appropriate staff, and the Parole Board supports this amendment, which is dedicated to improving the overall efficiency of the board and reducing delays in the system. That is particularly important in relation to IPP prisoners, whom we discussed earlier, since we can anticipate an increasing flow of IPP decisions to the Parole Board and an increasing workload accordingly.

However, there are important safeguards for substantive decisions on whether the statutory release test has been met and whether to terminate the licence, and decisions of that kind are not delegable. The procedure rules will specify exactly what functions can be delegated by the chair of the board to appropriate members of staff.

Amendments 162A and 162B, which I mentioned a moment ago, simply allow for this provision to be commenced on Royal Assent of the Bill, so that we get on with improving the procedures of the Parole Board as fast as possible.

As I have just said, that is part of our general approach to, among other things, IPP prisoners through the action plan, the Parole Board task force and now the procedures of the Parole Board, so that the whole system works appropriately to ensure the safe release of appropriate prisoners. It would be unnecessary to delay these reforms beyond Royal Assent. I commend these amendments to the House.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 9:00, 21 May 2024

My Lords, I need some guidance. Today’s list indicates that in this group are contained the government amendments to Clauses 55 and 56, which are the amendments relating to marriage and civil partnership. Today’s list also indicates, in the next group, that we have already debated my opposition and that of other noble Lords to Clauses 55 and 56. I am very happy to delay my comments on Clauses 55 and 56 until the Minister deals with them, but I thought I should just mention where we are.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

If I may help advance this, our understanding is that the Clauses 55 and 56 stand-part debates are the subject of group 6. I do not know whether that is the Minister’s understanding.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, that is my understanding. I am in a slight panic at the moment—the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, having raised this matter—and I hope I have not proceeded in the wrong order. I think this is group 6, according to my instructions.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

I am simply referring to today’s list, which is what I am working from. If the Minister looks at today’s list, he will see that this group includes, for example, government Amendment 156ZB, which is an amendment to Clause 55, and government Amendments 156ZC, 156ZD, 156ZE and 156ZF. I do not mind at all whether my amendments are in another group, but I do not want to be told later that I have missed my opportunity.

Photo of Lord Meston Lord Meston Crossbench

My Lords, I associate myself with those remarks. I stayed late, expecting to debate the question of the marriage of long-term prisoners, and was a bit concerned to see that the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, appeared to be described as “already debated”, which I do not think it can possibly have been.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, I will try to help once again, because I have in front of me a copy of the groupings that were sent out. The noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Meston, are absolutely right that some of the consequential government amendments have been put into group 5, but group 6 certainly includes—as we were told by the Government Whips’ Office—Amendment 165ZDA and Amendment 156ZI, which is the prisoner marriage substantive stand-part amendment. If we could proceed, that would be most convenient.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

I am very happy to proceed on the basis that group 6 will deal with these matters.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I have to say that I decided to ignore those and will discuss them in the next group, because they were in the wrong place.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

It is also the Government’s wish and position that we discuss that in the next group.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee)

Would it be possible to say something about what I think is common ground in this group—namely, the amendments dealing with the composition and functions of the Parole Board? This is dealt with in government Amendment 153A and Amendments 154, 155 and 156, in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett.

I thank the Government for what they have done. I entirely associate myself with that, and thank the Minister and the Lord Chancellor, and anyone else from the Government who accepted all of this. I am very grateful.

However, I now want to be slightly churlish about the new chair of the Parole Board—a very important position. A new chair is to be appointed, and looking at the website I see that the deadline for the applications was 24 February, sifting was 31 March, and interviews are expected to end on 31 May. I assume that the competition is largely done but current. Maybe the Minister cannot answer this now, but the provisions in relation to the Parole Board have been significantly changed as a result of this amendment.

There are two things. I imagine there are a number of people who would never contemplate taking on a quasi-judicial position; they would not touch it with a bargepole on the basis that you could make a decision that the Secretary of State thought affected public confidence in the board. No one would become a judge if you could be removed on the whim of a government Minister; it seems equally clear that no self-respecting person could agree to be chairman of the Parole Board if they could be removed on the whim of a Minister, as was in the Bill when this competition was run.

More seriously, the role of the Parole Board chair was crafted to remove the chair from the core work of the board—that is to say, deciding cases. Everyone knows that if you sit as a judge it is critical that you are not an administrator—you cannot lead and you are not respected. It seems to me very clear that the position of the chairman of the Parole Board has to be looked at in the light of the amendments that we are about to make.

I find it somewhat disappointing that this competition has been rushed ahead with without the position of the chairman being clear. I very much hope that the Minister can give some reassurance that more time will be taken to consider this in the light of the changes to the Bill, and that the competition will not go ahead without a further opportunity for people to apply and a proper assessment made of whether the persons who are in line are competent to deal with sitting on cases.

I do not know how this has happened. I am sure it has absolutely nothing to do with the Minister, but it is very disturbing that an appointment should be made on the basis of something in the Bill which has now been radically changed. I feel very churlish to be raising this point in the light of the Government’s acceptance of these amendments, but it seems to me that, as the chairmanship of the Parole Board is so critical, as the Minister and all of us accept, we must get the right person to do it. I am not certain that it is possible to have the right person without taking into account the new qualifications. I apologise for being churlish and for asking this question, but it is rather important. Otherwise, I warmly welcome this and thank the Government for what they have done.

Photo of Lord Jackson of Peterborough Lord Jackson of Peterborough Conservative

My Lords, I concede that I am the amuse-bouche of this debate, rather than the main course, as alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. If your Lordships’ House will allow me a few minutes, I will develop my remarks on Amendment 156ZA, tabled in my name, on Parole Board hearings. I thank my noble friend Lady Lawlor for originally moving this amendment so ably in my absence—I was unavoidably detained on parliamentary business—in Committee on 25 March. Naturally, I read my noble friend Lord Howe’s response on that occasion with great care.

The amendment seeks to establish the presumption that Parole Board hearings will be open to the public, but with exceptions. It endeavours to improve public faith and trust in the criminal justice system. This is both a probing and a permissive amendment. It is a natural progression that consolidates the reforms undertaken by Ministers over the last six years.

As we know, this was prompted by public disquiet over the proposed release of serial rapist John Worboys in 2018, which resulted in a review of the parole system and a public consultation, which was published in 2022. There was a finding in the High Court that the Parole Board’s rule 25—a blanket ban on transparency and details of the board’s deliberations—was unlawful. The Government have rightly moved to address the very serious failings identified by the Worboys case by allowing summaries of Parole Board decisions to be provided to victims and other interested parties, and to allow a reconsideration mechanism introduced in 2019. This allows a prisoner and/or the Secretary of State for Justice within 21 days to seek reconsideration of several decisions taken by the board. Victims are now also permitted to seek a judicial review on the grounds that decisions are procedurally unfair or irrational. Most significantly, the Parole Board’s rule 15 was amended by secondary legislation in 2022 to enable public hearings to be facilitated, upon request to the chair of the Parole Board, “in the interests of justice”—a test utilised by the Mental Health Tribunal.

This amendment is nuanced and heavily caveated in proposed new subsections (5) and (7). It presumes no absolute right to open Parole Board hearings on the most serious cases, but it nevertheless presents a balance between the interests of the victim, prisoners and the wider criminal justice system. It imposes a statutory duty on Ministers to take note of the importance of rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, fairness and due process.

I accept that the Parole Board discharges a quasi-judicial function, but secret justice is not justice as most reasonable people would regard it. Open and transparent judicial proceedings are one of a few fundamental principles in the court system of England and Wales. Furthermore, other jurisdictions across the world, such as those in Canada and the United States, have a more open and transparent hearings regime, especially regarding the right of victims to attend and participate in such meetings.

I am not entirely convinced of the Minister’s comments in the previous Committee debate: that the changes made in the 2022 regulations definitively precluded all but a few hearings from being held in public. My amendment specifically addresses concerns about sensitive evidence, and the concerns of the victims. It permits such matters to be raised as a rationale for proceedings to be held in camera.

Finally, may I respectfully disabuse the Minister of the notion that every one of the 8,000 parole cases would be held in public? This is not the aim of the amendment, the permissive nature of which means that there is an expectation that the powers will be only lightly exercised in a minority of the cases by the Secretary of State, with checks and balances in place to protect the operational independence of the Parole Board, and a requirement to publish a review of the efficacy of the policy as it affects the interests of justice test, as well as public confidence in and support of the criminal justice system.

I look forward to hearing my noble and learned friend the Minister address these issues and explain why it is not possible to go further, in the commendable programme of reforms already undertaken, by allowing public hearings to become the default position. I thank him for engaging so positively on this important issue.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 9:15, 21 May 2024

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining his amendments, which accept a number of points made in Committee. On the point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, about the position of the chair of the Parole Board—he raised this with me a little earlier, so I have not considered it in great detail— I am bound to say that I take the view that he is exactly right: you cannot possibly proceed with a selection procedure and take it to a conclusion when you have completely changed the job description. I hope the Government will take that point away.

I will speak to my Amendment 156ZAA, which remains on the Marshalled List and remains unresolved. It is intended to reduce the trauma caused to bereaved families and victims by repeated unmeritorious applications to the Parole Board for parole by the perpetrators of crimes who are serving life sentences. The restriction of such applications would be implemented without in any way diminishing access to the Parole Board for applicants who have a genuine reason for making, after an earlier refusal, further applications that may, in the right circumstances, be made as little as a year after a refusal. I am grateful to the London Victims’ Commissioner for her help with this amendment.

The present provision in Section 28(7)(b) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 provides that a prisoner serving a life sentence may not require the Secretary of State to refer the case to the Parole Board until after they have completed their minimum tariff and after the lapse of two years after any previous reference was completed. However, in practice, the Parole Board can, and frequently does, consider parole more often than every two years. Indeed, in the case of Chris Cave, stabbed to death at the age of 17 in 2003, there have been nine parole hearings after the earliest release date. His mother describes the repeated trauma of facing those parole hearings for her son’s murderer as torturing and as sometimes allowing only six months’ respite before the family has to prepare psychologically for the next parole hearing and prepare further victim impact statements.

This amendment would enable the Parole Board to direct a waiting time of between 12 months and four years before a further reference could be made—so the Parole Board could make the direction. However, if there were a direction for a waiting period of more than two years, the Parole Board would have to have a reasonable belief that the prisoner’s release prospects were unlikely to change over the period, and that decision would be reviewable.

The parole process is lengthy and is a potential time of stress for bereaved families and for victims and their families. Although such victims and bereaved families appreciate the opportunity to make impact statements and have them considered by the Parole Board, the strain of making them often is considerable and can often be retraumatising. This amendment is primarily aimed at preventing victims being subjected to that frequent stress when it is clear that nothing has changed.

We have considered concerns, which the Minister raised in Committee, that the rights of prisoners to reviews of their detention under Article 5(4) of the convention might be infringed. But we are satisfied that the flexible provisions in this amendment, including the review provision, are compliant with the convention and strike a fair balance between the rights of prisoners and those of their victims and their families.

At the same time as making this relatively modest change, we invite the Minister to say a bit more about what extra support can be offered through a perpetrator’s parole process to make that process more manageable and less frightening for the victims and bereaved families. With more public parole hearings and the trialling of victims’ attendance at closed hearings expected, the need for that support—and for sufficient resources to be allocated to providing it—is increasingly important.

The provision of further information to families is also very important and we would be grateful if the Minister would say something about the future provision of information to victims and bereaved families, either through the victim contact scheme or otherwise. Better information about the parole process is important, but such information is also needed about moves of prisoners to open conditions and their progress towards rehabilitation. That information would make the perpetrators’ process towards release much less painful for the families of their victims. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I am very glad that we have managed to sort out which are the right amendments in the right place through a collective effort across your Lordships’ House.

Noble Lords will recall a discussion on this matter in Committee, which is presumably what has led to these government amendments. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, I welcome them, but his questions about the appointments process are absolutely legitimate and feed into what we said in Committee—that the Government need to recognise the independence of the Parole Board and understand the risks of politicisation. The original Bill seemed to be government proposals in search of an actual problem to solve. The decision on the composition of the board should be a decision for the board.

The 2019 Ministry of Justice review of the Parole Board Rules stated:

“Restrictions on which panel members can hear particular types of case have gradually been lifted over time … to allow greater flexibility and timeliness in listing the right cases for the right panel members and we do not wish to undo the improvements this has achieved”.

That was echoed by Martin Jones, the chief executive of the Parole Board, when he gave evidence to the Commons committee.

So we are in a better place than we were at the beginning of this Bill, but the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, are very legitimate and require the Government’s attention and an answer. The noble Lord, Lord Jackson, raised some very interesting points about how the board operates and its accessibility. That is a difficult issue, because it sometimes deals with sensitive and controversial matters. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that, because its decisions by their nature are sensitive and controversial and the Government should keep the new additional power in sub-paragraph (2C) inserted by Clause 54 under review. Removing the chair because a decision in an individual case is unpopular, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, would influence the panel’s decisions and I think is not the way the committee and the House wish to see this go.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I begin with the amendments proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. It was not in the least bit churlish to raise this point about the process for the appointment of the new chair of the Parole Board. I have no reason to believe that this is not a fully effective appointments process, but I am not informed of the detail at this moment, and I will write to all noble Lords to set out what the position is.

I take it that the amendments proposed by the Government remove the need for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, to move his Amendments 155 and 156. I was not entirely clear on whether the noble and learned Lord is still moving Amendment 154, which relates to the law enforcement members of the Parole Board. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, I simply emphasise that nothing in the government amendments decides which individual members sit on which panel in individual cases. That remains the responsibility of the board, and that is right and proper. So I will not say anything further about that group of amendments.

I then come to Amendment 156ZA, proposed by my noble friend Lord Jackson. I thank him for the amendment because, as has been pointed out, it does raise some interesting and important issues. Once again, it is effectively a question of balance between all the various interests: victims, prisoners, confidentiality, details of health, et cetera. To recap, the provision for public parole hearings was introduced in 2022, allowing any hearing to be conducted in public if the chair of the Parole Board decides that it is in the interests of justice to do so. That changed the previous position, where all hearings were held in private. The amendment proposed by my noble friend would change that position so that all hearings would be in public by default, and a private hearing would take place only in exceptional circumstances.

The Government’s position on this amendment has not changed since it was explained in Committee and, if I may put it colloquially, the Government feel that we are still in the relatively early stage of developing and gaining experience from how the Parole Board manages public hearings. We are not yet ready to go as far as my noble friend would like us to go at this point. That is the essential answer to his point—but I do not close off the question at all. As has also been pointed out, it is part of a consideration of the continuous process of updating and reviewing the workings of the Parole Board as circumstances evolve.

To respond to the specific 8,000 hearings point raised by my noble friend, the Parole Board holds more than 8,000 hearings a year. This amendment would require the Secretary of State and the Parole Board to consider the merits of having a public hearing in every case. Victims would need to be contacted in every case, which would potentially add to their trauma. It is more complex and takes longer to have public hearings, and that may well delay proceedings further. To date, the Parole Board has published decisions for just 32 public hearing applications since 2022, eight of which have been granted. That suggests to the Government that the demand for public hearings is not, in fact, especially high, but I again emphasise that the situation is still evolving and that we need to continue to learn from the practice of the day. I very much understand the desire to create more openness, transparency and trust in the parole system, but I would not wish to create new administrative burdens on the system, potentially slowing it down. On the other hand, I do not feel that this amendment can be pursued at this point in time. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.

Amendment 156ZAA, tabled again by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, concerns the interval between hearings and seeks to allow the Parole Board to direct the period of time. It aims to deal with the problem, as he would put it, of repeated applications. The Government are not able to change their position from that set out in Committee. The current system already provides for flexibility in the time set for the prisoner’s next parole review, and it is HMPPS—not the board—that currently sets that interval. HMPPS considers a range of factors in deciding when to refer the prisoner to the Parole Board on behalf of the Secretary of State. Reasons must be given for the length of the interval between reviews, including the Parole Board’s reasons for declining to direct the prisoner’s release at the conclusion of the last review and the interventions required to allow them to progress. The closer the interval length is to the two-year limit, the greater the justification required for the time between reviews.

I take the point that there appear to be some examples of repeated hearings, which is a matter that I am prepared to investigate further with HMPPS. We would not want either to set hearings too soon or to change the system as it stands. In particular, the Government do not support an increase in the maximum hearing from two to four years. Where indeterminate sentence prisoners have served their tariff, unless the Parole Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that they should be confined, they will remain in prison. While the courts have not provided a limit on the time between reviews, the Government’s view is that the limit of two years strikes the right balance between allowing the prisoner time to demonstrate progress in custody and satisfying the rights that the prisoner has in law. I completely understand the question of balance and the interplay between the victims and prisoners, but the Government feel that the present position strikes the right balance.

The noble Lord asked me to say more about how we are looking after victims during this process. The victim contact scheme is the main mechanism for helping victims through the parole process. Victims who choose to sign up to the scheme are assigned a victim liaison officer, who can guide them through the parole process, answer their questions and help them forward their views on matters such as requesting licence conditions and submitting a victim personal statement.

We are currently testing victim-observed hearings in two probation regions and will roll them out more widely in due course. When a victim is observing a parole hearing, they do so remotely by videolink and are supported in-person by a victim representative, who is a member of the probation staff with a more detailed knowledge and experience of parole hearings than most victim liaison officers. They help to make the arrangements for the hearing and prepare the victims for the experience. They are on hand to guide victims through the hearing and answer their questions and are available afterwards.

We are offering a high level of support to victims who observe hearings, and the feedback from the testing has so far been largely positive. We are currently thinking carefully about what the right package of support for victims should be and are considering other suggestions on how the victim contact scheme can be improved, so that victims are fully supported.

I hope that gives the noble Lord a little more information; I am happy to supplement it in writing, if necessary. The ministry is very aware of the need to support victims in these circumstances and, as I said, is working hard to make sure that they get the right support. For those reasons, I urge him not to press his Amendment 156ZAA.

Amendment 153A agreed.

Amendment 154 not moved.